Prime Minister Putin recently announced that he would run for the Russian presidency, effectively guaranteeing a return of President Putin to the Kremlin. But Russia now faces a wealth of new challenges, domestically and internationally, including a stagnating global economy, newly assertive rising powers, and declining support for Putin’s United Russia Party.

In a Q&A, Dmitri Trenin, author of Post-Imperium, argues that Russia is still an important global strategic player, thanks to its oil and gas reserves and nuclear arsenal. But there will not be a return to the Russian Empire—Russia lacks the will and the resources. Putin will need to show that he is committed to moving the U.S.-Russian relationship past its Cold War baggage.

How will the departure of Medvedev and the return of Putin to the presidency affect Russia?

The informal has become formal again. Putin has been ruling Russia as prime minister, after previously ruling for eight years as president. Now he wants to be the formal ruler and the person who wields the ultimate power in the land.

For a lot of people this is the end of the tandem. For some this is positive. Others saw the tandem as a source of confusion, yet others thought it was all a set-up. Now we see a situation in which Putin, again, is the person to refer to. This has its minuses, but it has some pluses as well.

Putin is fairly well known. The question was once asked, I think at Davos in 2000, “Who is Mr. Putin?” This is no longer a relevant question as he is now a very well-known person. Alas, many think that he probably won’t be able to change or reinvent himself in order to effectively deal with the challenges that are affecting Russia.

On the other hand, he is someone who’s been here for a long period of time. He still commands the supreme authority in the top echelons of Russian power. He is someone who is still popular among the bulk of the electorate. We know quite a bit about Putin. In that sense, he is predictable. But the other side of the same coin is that this predictability probably tells us that old medicine and old solutions will be offered for new problems that Russia is facing. A lot of people are saying that’s not sufficient, it’s not adequate.

How will Putin’s return affect U.S.-Russian relations?

I don’t believe that Putin’s return will necessarily negatively affect the U.S.-Russian relationship. The reset has always had the support of Putin. Medvedev was given the go-ahead by Putin to reach out to Obama and the administration in Washington. However, the reset is something which will not be sustained automatically—it will require an effort in both capitals.

For many people outside of Russia, Putin is a very negative figure and some people would hesitate to do business with him. In some ways, the reset only became possible because Putin was not the formal head of the Russian state at the time of Obama’s inauguration. That made it easier for the United States to reach out to the Kremlin. And again, since the reset requires a lot of trying things out, some people may say, “Why should we continue trying? We have this guy who we don’t think is a good guy; he was issued a black hat by much of the media in the Western world years ago, so why should we continue trying? It’s worthless.”

The danger is that it could de-motivate people in the United States—and more broadly the West—in trying to improve the relationship between Russia and the United States and Russia and Western Europe.

Another danger is that on the Russian side, a lot of people in Russia see Putin as a hardliner whose return to power—although he never left—signals that the United States needs to take a harder line. You need to adopt harsher rhetoric and a less cooperative position vis-à-vis the United States and a few other countries across the board. And they believe that is what Putin wants and how they should behave in this new political era in Russia, and new relations with the United States.

So those are the dangers. It’s important that Putin shows himself as someone who is very committed to improving U.S.-Russia relations. He needs to show himself as someone who wants the relationship to outlive its Cold War baggage—an environment in which part of the relationship is still stuck. 

It will be difficult for Putin to do this, and yet there are certain areas that could be useful for immediate and short-term progress. One is the WTO accession. If that is consummated in 2012, it will be a good start for a new period in U.S.-Russian relations and a good start for a new Russian presidency, as far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned.

We also need to keep up the dialogue on missile defense cooperation. While fully realizing that an agreement on missile defense will probably take a very long time and need a lot of effort to be accomplished, one needs to keep on trying; one needs to keep the whole process going. Otherwise, a good opportunity to change the continued adversity in U.S.-Russian relations, and replace it with cooperation at a strategic level will be missed. 

Does Russia still have the ability to affect the global balance of power?

Russia does still have the ability to impact the global balance of power. It has fewer resources than the Soviet Union had, but it still has a nuclear arsenal that is on a par with that of the United States. Of course we are not thinking very much today about nuclear balances and nuclear relationships, but it’s still there, at the back of people’s minds. When Admiral Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was talking about the two biggest external dangers to the United States, he named cyber warfare and the Russian capability to utterly destroy the United States. So it’s there. We don’t talk about that, we don’t even think about that. The Cold War ended twenty years ago but it is there as a factor.

Russia is also the world’s leading energy producer. It has oil but also natural gas—that’s important. Russia is also home to a lot of natural wealth in this world, which affects new post-Cold War international relations even more than it affected international relations during or before the Cold War. And Russia is also a repository of perhaps the largest body of fresh water in the world and that is important.

But Russia has a puny share of the global economy—2 percent. It has a puny share of the world’s population, again something like 2 percent. Still, it considers itself strategically independent—this is what the Russians mean when they call themselves a country of great power. It’s not so much about dominating other countries, but rather not letting other countries dominate Russia. Strategic independence in today’s world means independence of the two principal players—the United States and China. So Russia sees itself as an independent strategic player and that is important for the global balance.

Will there be a return to the Russian Empire?

There will be no return to the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire is dead, never to return. It’s a museum. It’s history. To some people, it’s a source of glory, like people in the United Kingdom who think about the glorious days of the British Empire. There are Russians who recall their empiric past with a lot of pride. And indeed, empires historically have contributed to human advancement in various ways. Of course they were oppressive creatures and in the long run unsustainable. But that’s a different story.

So there is no return. There is no will and there are no resources. The world has turned far from where it was when the Soviet Empire, which is the historical empire of Russia, collapsed twenty years ago.

The interesting thing though, if you listen to what a lot of people in Russia and in neighboring countries—from Tallinn to Tbilisi—are saying, they are still talking as if the empire were there or about to be resurrected. For some people, I think this is what they actually feel. For other people, this is something that they believe could be useful. But my judgment is clear. There’s no Russian Empire and it’s not coming back.

What steps do Russian leaders need to take to modernize Russia and prevent it from becoming marginalized?

This is an extremely difficult question. First, they need to stop thinking exclusively about their own interests. You have an elite that has risen but it doesn’t lead and doesn’t want to lead. It’s only concerned with itself and its riches. But it’s not concerned with the country.

At the societal level, there’s very little feeling of togetherness. You have a country that is not a nation. Russia has ceased to be an empire, but it has not yet become a nation. So that’s important. And it’s important that the elites assume responsibility for leading. It’s not for nothing that they have access to power and riches and other things. They need to engage in a quid pro quo with society as a whole. But this is absent. And this has everything to do with the all-important question of corruption. That is number one.

Second, the Russian economic system needs to be freed from the monopolies that exist there. It should also be freed from the very unholy alliance that the economic agents have established with the political masters. There’s a merger of power and money, and this merger is strangling both the economy and the polity of Russia. So that bond needs to be severed.

If the people of Russia start thinking of themselves not only as consumers, which they have become over the last twenty years, but also as citizens, then there is a chance that Russia may become a republic in the most literal sense of the word—a res publica, a common cause that unites people. This does not currently exist. But I think that the most important thing that would result from the changes that I have described would be the passage from the present arbitrary rule to the rule of law in Russia. The rule of law could and should be the basis for Russia’s rebirth. And that, I think, is the way forward.